Comedy BreakConsumerismGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeHealth & DiseaseSociety

The Caffeine Did It?

Warning: Irony alert. People without a sense of humour should proceed with caution.

Some time ago the National Geographic did a piece on the connection between the introduction of caffeinated drinks into Europe and the Industrial Revolution.

It’s hardly a coincidence that coffee and tea caught on in Europe just as the first factories were ushering in the industrial revolution. The widespread use of caffeinated drinks—replacing the ubiquitous beer—facilitated the great transformation of human economic endeavor from the farm to the factory. Boiling water to make coffee or tea helped decrease the incidence of disease among workers in crowded cities. And the caffeine in their systems kept them from falling asleep over the machinery. In a sense, caffeine is the drug that made the modern world possible. And the more modern our world gets, the more we seem to need it. Without that useful jolt of coffee—or Diet Coke or Red Bull—to get us out of bed and back to work, the 24-hour society of the developed world couldn’t exist. — National Geographic

If this is so, then, of course, my incessantly wandering mind must put two and two together. If caffeine was an essential ingredient to bring about the Industrial Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution brought about widespread environmental destruction and climate change, then… that’s it… caffeine is bringing us to the brink of disaster!

Electricity, combined with caffeine, keeps us up late at night – when in pre-industrial times it would have been lights out hours ago. We’re no longer ‘burning the candle at both ends’, but rather the coal-fired power station that lights our homes and powers our televisions through the sunless hours.

And the next day – how does the day begin for most of us? Out of our beds we emerge like the walking dead from a B-grade zombie movie, until we reach for our kick-start-in-a-cup, and begin the cycle again.

Caffeine not only fueled the Industrial Revolution, but the Industrial Revolution and caffeine together saw the demise of the siesta – the mid-afternoon power-nap that was common in many parts of the world, including northern Europe.

And here’s another misunderstanding about siestas. It’s not really a Mediterranean invention — it’s just that those southern European countries have had the good sense to preserve the tradition.

Before the industrial revolution and fixed working hours, it would have been perfectly normal in northern Europe for people to take an afternoon sleep…. – BBC

We’ve written about factory farming several times on this site, and how our industry attempts at efficiency are back-firing in disease. Our industrial mindset takes a biological creature, like a chicken, and puts it into an industrial setting – trying to… er… squeeze out the maximum ‘widgets per chicken-hour’ (in this case, eggs) as possible. We treat the animal like a machine, and when it doesn’t operate as we want, we pump it with drugs until it does. It’s unnatural, and it’s unhealthy.

In a similar way, it’s interesting how we, also a biological creature, are applying this same template to ourselves – patterning ourselves after the machines we’ve created. Our economy is about widgets per man-hour, mathematics, and supposed efficiency. We’re bending our body’s biological clock to fit a schedule dictated by a mechanical clock on the wall, and we’re the only creatures on the planet to do so. Recent studies are proving that our bodies know best.

To reverse environmental degradation, won’t we need to slow down?

While you guys are rolling this around in your mind and thinking how to comment on this, I’m going to go and have forty winks, and come back at peak efficiency.



  1. It is quite interesting to read what William Cobbett wrote in the 1820s about tea and beer in “Cottage Economy”. These days, we consider hot beverages such as tea and coffee as the most normal thing there is in the world – but it was not always like that.

    Evidently, people drank something else before they started drinking tea. Also, tea-drinking is of course related to the colonial past. And quite likely, people’s habits had to be changed so that imported beverages could replace their traditional drinks. As it seems, this was done (at least partially) via beer-brewing related taxes:

    Mr. Ellman, an old man and a large farmer, in Sussex, has recently given in evidence, before a Committee of the House of Commons, this fact; that, forty years ago, there was not a labourer in his parish that did not brew his own beer; and that now there is not one that does it, except by chance the malt be given him. The causes of this change have been the lowering of the wages of labour, compared with the price of provisions, by the means of the paper-money; the enormous “tax upon the barley when made into malt; and the increased tax upon hops. These have quite changed the customs of the English people as to their drink. They still drink beer, but in general it is of the brewing of common brewers, and in public-houses, of which the common brewers have become the owners, and have thus, by the aid of papermoney, obtained a monopoly in the supplying of the great body of the people with one of those things which, to the hard-working man, is almost a necessary of life.

    Cobbett is funny to read because he is so very wrong about so many things. (When people claim permaculture would be about "going back to the 19th century", I occassionally let them read some of Cobbett's writings – no, we are certainly not in any way going back to believing such strange things, and founding our culture on them.) Still, his writings offer an outer perspective and sometimes are very useful to get an idea what the roots of those forces are that shaped the present.

  2. Thank you for this piece on caffeine. It is nice to see the morphing mosaic continuing in permaculture, including more of this zone 0 stuff, the internal landscapes, including circadian rythyms and ecopsychology. I particularly like the theme of sugar and caffeine and how it helps, holds up and maintains the pattern of industrialism. Integrated, regular and encouraged are the sanctioned drug breaks, which include the colonised teas, coffees, sugars, sodas and now the new caffeinated energy drinks. I await to see a more comfortable, inclusive and open culture of cannabis and other entheogens integrated into the permaculture conversation and media creations. Diversity in connections, tools & mental landscapes are required for this century of challenges, as Stoneleigh terms it. We cannot leave any plants or other beings out.

    In Terence McKenna’s, Food of the Gods, he devotes part three of his book called Hell, to the subject of your article in a chapter called Complacencies of the Peignoir: Sugar, Coffee, Tea and Chocolate. A common theme woven throughout much of his works is the concept of dominator culture as opposed to partnership, nature of these tools of capitalism. Boundary dissolution and supression of the ego is much needed in our epoc and a gift we can obtain from the sacred plants who have incessant patience and willingness to teach, not to mention an extremely long track record.


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